The notion that the peoples spread across what was once the Russian empire constitute a separate civilization, not only distinct from the West but also superior to it, is back in vogue. Clover traces this belief, called “Eurasianism,” back to its roots among fractious White Russian intellectual émigrés in the 1920s all the way to the present, where its warped echo resounds in the nationalist themes lately brandished by allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Clover builds his analysis around three linked biographies, each based on remarkably careful scholarship: first, that of Prince Nikolay Trubetskoy, doyen of the original Eurasian movement; then, that of the remarkable historian Lev Gumilev, who developed theories about the nature of Slavic ethnicity; and finally, that of the eccentric sociologist Alexander Dugin, today’s most prominent advocate of Eurasianism. In fascinating detail, Clover tracks the way the jaundiced and largely bogus thinking of these three paladins has filtered into various Russian nationalist groups, Russian institutions (particularly the military), and even Putin’s own thinking. Clover offers a particularly fine portrait of Gumilev’s tortured early life as a victim of Joseph Stalin’s camps. While imprisoned, Gumilev developed his ethnogenetic theory on the origins of Russia as a Eurasian amalgam, work rediscovered by a nationalist under-current that was recrudescent in the Soviet Union’s last years. He has been further lionized in a post-Soviet Russia.
Bassin adds to this portrait of Gumilev a deeper and more elaborate exploration of the man’s diffuse but marked influence on different levels of Russian society. A book “devoted to nothing more than his ideas themselves would arguably not need to be written,” Bassin notes, given their speculative, unscientific, and mystical character. What needs explaining is their peculiar impact on politics and on academic and popular discourse in contemporary Russia. Bassin probes how Gumilev’s obscurantist theories about the biological basis of politics and his vision of a happy blending of the Russian “ethnos” with the ancient peoples of the steppe reverberate in the fevered consciousness of a burgeoning nationalist elite in today’s Russia.